Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Opera Australia's 2016 production of Giacomo Puccini's "Turandot" (1924): A Review

The "Turandot" legend originally comes from the work of Nizami Ganjavi (c.1141-1209), a 12th century Sunni Muslim poet long considered the greatest romantic epic poet in Persian literature, though he also introduced realistic, down-to-earth characters in amid the epic. A quintessential polymath, Nizami was exceptionally learned and is credited for bridging Persia and the ancient world. Bringing myself grudgingly to the point, his great work The Seven Beauties (Persian: Haft Peykar) is both erotic and moralistic, and featured a character called Turandokht ("daughter of Turan", in which Turan is a region of Central Asia; note how similar the Persian word "dokht" is to Icelandic "dottir", German "Tochter" and English "daughter"). Eventually the figure reaches European legend by way of the 18th century French orientalist, François Pétis de la Croix, in Les mille et un jours (The Thousand And One Days, after the model of "A Thousand and One Nights"), which in turn inspires a commedia dell'arte play of the name Turandot by Carlo Gozzi, first performed in Venice in 1762. Friedrich Schiller translated Gozzi's play and refashioned it for the Weimar audience; it debuted at Weimar in 1802 under the direction of his friend, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Where Gozzi goes for the light and sarcastic, Schiller's is a vast, symbolic epic, turning some of the whimsical capriciousness (and occasional cruelty) of Gozzi's Princess Turandot into a moral stand. 

Set in imperial, feudalist China, Giacomo Puccini's unfinished 1924 opera, Turandot (with an ending supplied by Franco Alfano in 1926), perhaps owes more to Gozzi's version than Schiller's. In Puccini's opera, Princess Turandot is a woman of staggering beauty, but she is as icily cold and remote as she is beautiful, and she is renowned for her cruel, unforgiving nature and single-mindedness. Throughout the opera, both in the text and in Chen Shi-Zheng's inventively staged production on Sydney Harbourfront, we are reminded of how she is a being of the night: her dress gleams vivid white like starlight, or the light of the moon; in the play's final act, she has until dawn to discover the name of her unknown suitor to avoid having to marry him, and so while he urges the dawn to rush on, she bids the night stay as long as possible. Her suitor, Prince Calaf, is thus associated with dawn and the rise of the sun - the joyous glimmering of his hopes as the chance of marrying this remote, goddess-like princess grows ever stronger. This is beautifully, elegantly managed here, with some stunning visuals and light displays to signal the interplay of sun and moon, yin and yang. 

Calaf and Turandot, however, do not perhaps engage us as much as Puccini intends. Riccardo Massi and Dragana Radakovic are technically excellent, but cannot escape the fact that their parts as the great men and women of history, the exalted royals who are practically mythic figures, are not a good fit for Puccini's own versimo (or realistic) style. The staging works some charm into the fiery, passionate lust of Calaf and the ice-cold restraint of Turandot (the way she appears atop a vast pagoda, slowly descending to his level, works marvellously) but it is ultimately a morally simplistic tale of two "godlike" but dramatically uninteresting figures. The riddles which Turandot sets Calaf are also not that fiendishly difficult (I guessed them as Hope, Love and Turandot; the middle one is Blood, but still two out of three ain't bad), though I'm aware internal plot logic doesn't matter in an opera as much as spectacle. Still, I suppose I felt some disappointment that this was yet another blandly familiar "Great Prince Woos Remote Princess" storyline, the language couched in terms of him "winning" her like a trophy, and her having to "give in" to him; that eventually she decides she does want to fall in love with him after all is especially clunky.

This is such a shame, because everything else is so good (and, in Shi-Zheng's defence, he does as well with it as can be expected; "Nessun dorma", the famous tenor aria Calaf sings of his assurance that he will win the princess come the dawn, is terrifically done; the fireworks and huge fire-breathing dragon are magical; the costumes are stunning; and the pagoda's various levels is a staging triumph). But what really shines about Turandot is the versimo aspects, those real-life qualities. Look no further, for instance, than the three ministers to the state, Ping, Pong and Pang - comic, yes, with their humorous (if politically incorrect) names and their flowing robes in different colours and their affectations, and yet also subtly rendered. This comes across in two scenes: the first is where they warn Calaf of trying to pursue the princess ("Death!" they reply every time he exclaims "Turandot!"), urging him that his dream of an illusory happiness with her is just that - illusion. "Turandot doesn't exist," they insist, "she is nothingness"; this recognition of the exaggeration of mythology is more dramatically compelling than the mythological, triumphant ending we eventually get. Their second great scene is the opening of Act 2, in which they reminisce about all the suitors they have seen die in attempting to woo Turandot, and bewailing the deaths the authoritarian state has caused. In a rare, intimate moment, Ping longs for his country house in the fertile province of Henan, yearning to escape his ministerial life of ritual. The opera is all the better for the inclusion of such aspects.

But best of all is Liu, for my money far and away the most interesting aspect of the opera - and one I wish Puccini had emphasised, if only to puncture the grandiose, mythological aspects. Liu is the slave-girl so devoted to Calaf that she protects his secrets above all else, even going as far as dying for him; a storyline so painful, so tragic, and in this instance so powerfully rendered by Hyeseoung Kwon, that it dwarfs the allegedly "greater" figures. She's a real working-class hero, modelled on Puccini's own maid (with whom his wife wrongly suspected he was having an affair), and for me the centre-piece of the story's tragic suffering. It is the shift from the climax revolving around Liu to Calaf's "happy ending" with Turandot which is so particularly jarring - planned by Puccini, but left unfinished as he was incapable of finding a way for it to work. The first performance, indeed, saw the conductor Arturo Toscanini laying down his baton at the unfinished point, saying "at this point, the Maestro died". Perhaps the tradition should be revived, for Alfano's ending is extremely flawed; the happy ending does not feel like anyone believes in it, and the relationship between Turandot and Calaf seems entirely based on lust rather than any profundity of feeling. I am only repeating what countless others have said in saying that I want to see more of Liu and less of Calaf and Turandot, but that doesn't hold back Shi-Zheng's strong production of this flawed but occasionally brilliant opera, with all the vividness of blending East and West, beauty and cruelty, day and night. 

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